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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee
Mental health of returned Australian Defence Force personnel

SARICH, Mr Lee Anthony, Private capacity


CHAIR: Welcome, Mr Sarich. Is there anything you would like to say about the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Sarich : I am here today in the capacity of a resident of Homes for Heroes.

CHAIR: Would you like to make a brief opening statement, or would you like to go straight to questions? It is entirely up to you.

Mr Sarich : I want to jump straight to questions.

CHAIR: Tell us your story. How did you end up here?

Mr Sarich : Briefly, I had about 10 years of military service. I started in the reserves for about five years. I transferred to the regular Army in 2005. I was deployed to Afghanistan in 2007. On that deployment, I was in an IED incident where I was, effectively, blown up. I was in a vehicle that hit an IED. As a consequence of that, I was diagnosed with PTSD six months later, in 2008. As a result of that diagnosis, I took some time off work and accepted treatment. The treatment seemed effective. I went back to work, back to full duties, which is what I wanted to do. I redeployed to Afghanistan in 2010. Upon redeployment, I found that the stress of redeployment exacerbated the PTSD symptoms, so I was unable to continue on that tour. So I was sent back to Australia, and then after that I commenced the process of a medical retirement from Defence. I was medically retired in 2012 and my PTSD just got worse. I was very disappointed that I had to leave the military, but that seemed obvious, so I thought I would just get on with civilian life and found that I was not able to do that.

As a result of the PTSD I ended up homeless. It was a very difficult time. I almost killed myself a year and a half ago. It is hard to briefly explain y what that was like and how that ended. About 18 months ago I came across this program and started getting some PTSD treatment. Whilst getting treatment for PTSD I heard about the Homes are Heroes program. I was one of those guys that went into a hospital on the Gold Coast and as a veteran got treated anxiety and depression and then left the hospital homeless—it just seems a little bit absurd. Sometime later I came down to Sydney and went into the St John of God Hospital and got treated for PTSD. I would have left their homeless as well, and effectively did, other than at the time the informal kind of arrangement of the Homes for Heroes program. I moved out here just over 12 months ago. I have been here as a resident for 12 months. I have been undergoing treatment and rehabilitation for PTSD since I have been here.

CHAIR: We have had evidence from Mr Evans that you can access treatment, such as you can find some care and support in a hospital, but they are prepared to discharge you without anywhere to go. Isn't that going to just put you on the rebound? Aren't you going to just come back in a couple of weeks? It is quite extraordinary that you can be accepted and treated and then discharged without a place to go.

Mr Sarich : Extraordinary, absurd—there are a whole heap of words we could use to describe the process.

Senator STERLE: When you and your colleagues are being treated, do they ask that question? Do they actually go a bit deeper than just having you sitting there for the time they are treating you?

Mr Sarich : It is difficult question to answer. Looking backwards from where I am now, I remember a psychiatrist on the Gold Coast asking me. I am embarrassed, I do not want to admit to a psychiatrist—I am a soldier, I have fought in Afghanistan, I have led men in battle—that I cannot actually manage my life at the moment, and that when I leave here I do not really know where I am going to go. I remember a question being asked, and I tried to minimise it and pay it off—if that makes any sense. It is difficult to be able to give a full and correct answer in that sense.

Senator STERLE: I understand.

Mr Sarich : It occurs to me that it should not be my responsibility, as an unwell person, to be able to provide that information.

Senator STERLE: Would you then believe that if there were follow-up services, as Mr Evans was talking about earlier in the recommendations, that it would assist you if you were to talk to one of your peers?

Mr Sarich : Absolutely.

Senator STERLE: That it would certainly go a long way to providing the information that they need.

Mr Sarich : Absolutely. If I could describe the process of what happened when I was a patient at St John of God—similarly, I had the professionals like a social worker or maybe a nurse that I was talking with about my situation, and I tried to downplay it. Again, I was not wanting to admit to the professionals the situation that I was in. I did not really know how to rectify it. What happened was the informal process of other veterans talking to the other veterans, who I had met and who were getting treated in that facility, and they found out that I was homeless. They knew that when I left St John of God that I did not know where I was going, and those guys came—they did not even speak to me about it, actually, because they probably knew that I would deny it and minimise it. They organised it behind my back, so to speak, and Geoff got in touch with me. That was how the process worked. I was ready to leave when I finished treatment and try to figure out what I had to do. I would have done that without the intervention—at that stage a very informal intervention—of other veterans that were in the facility and Geoff. They chased me and said: 'Hey, we've heard that you're homeless. Here's what you need to do so that you are not going to be homeless.' That was the proactive—

CHAIR: This really touches on the complexity of this problem. I went to Afghanistan for a very short 10 days. The people I met there had trained extremely hard to get there and were the best of their lot.

Mr Sarich : They are at the top of their game.

CHAIR: For people to admit a problem when they have worked so hard to get into that zone, it makes it really difficult for Defence and DVA to start putting in place measures to help. As you say, when you are in a clinical environment, you are not going to own up to being weak or to being homeless. It seems to really be one of the complexities of this issue in that the people who need the most help are not the ones that are able to articulate the request.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: If you had had a case manager—perhaps another veteran who had been trained to manage your situation—do you think that that would have helped, or would you still have been dubious about sharing information with—

Senator STERLE: A stranger?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Potentially a stranger, yes. We have had suggestions that other veterans could fill this role if they were trained, because they understand and they would be able to relate to people like you better. Would that have still been an issue for you if someone had been there to help you manage where you went after you were discharged from hospital and making sure that you got services. It sounded like Mr Evans did anyway, just informally and quietly, but one thing that the committee may look at suggesting is more case managers for situations such as yourselves?

Mr Sarich : I think that that is a great idea. One of the important things that you mention is training and well-trained case workers. There were individuals that I came in touch with, like veterans, who were wanting to help and are just shied away from it. It was difficult to explain. The point is that I do not believe that just being a veteran makes someone effective in working with other veterans. I think that, particularly as veterans, what we do not have typically is the training to work with people who have experienced trauma in such a way that does not continue to traumatise them. I think case-working and proactive case-working is the only idea, I can see, that would be effective, but absolutely with the proviso of adequate training in dealing with people who have experienced trauma.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: In relation to Senator Gallacher's observations, when he visited Afghanistan, about how well-trained you guys are and you are at the top of the game,—do not answer this if you do not feel comfortable—when you were originally diagnosed with PTSD, can you tell the committee a little bit more about the kinds of symptoms you were experiencing and whether it was a difficult thing for you at the time, as a serving front-line soldier, to get that diagnosed? Could you tell us the process? Was it a medical officer? Was it your CO? What actually led to the diagnosis?

Mr Sarich : I can tell you. On 8 October 2007 I was in a LAV, a light armoured vehicle, that hit an IED. The driver, Trooper David Pearce, was killed. That was on 8 October. I was home, I think, on 27 October. My tour finished. I was living at Ferny Grove and I was posted to Enoggera. In the morning I would drive from Ferny Grove to the base at Enoggera. It was probably about a 15- to 20-minute drive. What started happening for me during that drive is that every time my car hit a bump I would experience getting blown up again. It was probably like four, five or six times on the way to work. I was getting to work at seven or 7.15 in the morning with, more or less, having had that experience eight or 10 times of being blown up again. I talked to some of our medical staff about that. The advice I got was pretty much, 'Well, of course that is going to happen,' and that seemed logical. 'You got blown up a few weeks ago. Keep talking to us about it and, if it continues, we will look at it.' It did continue. As best I could, I tried to ignore it and carry on with work. What ended up happening was I was deployed to Malaysia in about May 2008, which was about four or six months later.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: When you did speak to the medical professional who gave you that advice that time, was it you who sought that advice? Did you approach them or did you go through some kind of, if not debrief, a counselling service because you had been involved in a traumatic incident? Was it a default position that someone would sit down and talk to you about this incident?

Mr Sarich : It was not a default position. I went through a post-op screening process. I think because I was not thinking about my killing myself at that time, there was no real big red flag in the post-op screening process. I was kind of aware that something was wrong and I needed to talk about it. The advice I got was to monitor it. I ended up deploying to Malaysia on a training deployment. In Malaysia, those symptoms of re-experiencing being blown up were continuing to happen. They were starting to impair my ability to function, if that makes sense. With what I described earlier, I could still get in my car, drive to work and carry on a day's work. What I found in Malaysia was I was having panic attacks, feeling like I was going to get blown up in buses and in pubs. I was unable to function. I was not able to move or communicate. When that happened, it occurred to me that perhaps I needed to be talking to some of my superiors about this because it might create a problem. I spoke to my superiors. I was diagnosed with PTSD very quickly and they returned me to Australia to begin treatment.

You also asked about my experience of that. I was incensed about being sent home. I just wanted to keep working. I wanted them to fix me so I could keep working. I thought they should be able to do that in maybe a week or a couple of days.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Did you do the six-month rehabilitation program?

Mr Sarich : Yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: And then you redeployed?

Mr Sarich : Yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: When you redeployed a second time, what was the process then? You obviously had not been fixed. Did you raised the issue once again with superiors or was it more complex than that?

Mr Sarich : At first I spoke with my immediate colleagues and explained it. My experience of the symptoms was that sometimes they were really quite bad, the flashbacks that I was getting. I knew that if they continued at that level that I would not be able to continue to do my job. And then they would recede, the flashbacks and the stress, and I would seem to be able to function to do the job so that led me to believe that maybe I would settle into the environment again and be able to continue. I notified by immediate colleagues about this and that I would continue to keep them informed. Over time when it seemed that the symptoms were getting worse and began to affect my ability to function, I notified my higher superiors and told them what was happening and that I was not able to continue.

CHAIR: Given your experience, what could be done better? You have had a very personal experience of this. Being a trained soldier, you tried to fight your way through it and realised you could not. What should be done? What should be in place to better assist people who find themselves, through no fault of their own, in the situation you were in?

Mr Sarich : I am not sure of the context of the question.

CHAIR: What could have been done better to help you through your situation? What should DVA or Defence have done better?

Mr Sarich : I think Defence did a great job. I heard you speaking about it earlier. I think you said something about no other organisation would be allowed—

CHAIR: They would not be able to put 3,000 or 4,000 people into a situation that renders them homeless through the course of their employment.

Mr Sarich : It seems to me that Defence's responsibility stops when someone is discharged. I really do not know that that is a Defence responsibility.

CHAIR: The allegation is that Defence discharges people with a problem to be someone else's problem.

Mr Sarich : If you are asking what would be better, what I needed was for some organisation, be it DVA or another organisation, to act proactively. I needed somebody proactively chasing me down, finding out if I am okay post discharge, and that did not happen. It was left up to me. My intentions were to just get on with life. When I found out that I was not able to do that, it was too late if that makes sense.

CHAIR: Mr Evans said that in evidence too.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Before that point though, you indicated, when you answered the first question, that you were disappointed that Defence discharged you. Were you seeking other roles within Defence? We understand there are programs where Defence will keep on personnel and assign them to other roles. Was that something you were considering or were you disappointed that you immediately were put into medical discharge and had to leave Defence? Did you raise that issue?

Mr Sarich : I was disappointed that it seemed to me that I was unable to continue with military service because of the effects of the PTSD injury. I was given some options to look at retraining in different positions. For every position in Defence, one needs to be able to deploy and the medical advice was that under deployment, the PTSD in my case would be exasperated to such an extent that I would not be effectively able to deploy.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Could you explain at the time if there was any stigma and attached to that. Were your mates and superiors and others okay with it? Was it acceptable that you had this issue? The committee has heard evidence that sometimes these kinds of things have stigmas attached to them, that you can be seen as a skiver or other words we have heard and that it is a big issue. Is your testimony that you were well treated and respected with this issue once it had been diagnosed?

Mr Sarich : My testimony would be was that I was well treated and well respected. It was clear to me that that was not the case for a lot of people. I think it was really easy for me because I could say I got blown up and people could see that; it was kind of logical. I often felt that I was positively discriminated against, if I can use those terms, because it was really easy to track and see. I knew there were a lot of other people struggling with PTSD. It was easy to track a very obvious event, particularly the event that I was involved in, which was a big deal in Australia.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Thank you for being very honest about that. The Homes for Heroes submission goes into some detail on page 15 around a homelessness screening tool that is used in the US where, when a veteran is being discharged, they can go through this process where the risks are assessed. In your situation, would you have felt comfortable with participating in such a process? Do you know much about that?

Mr Sarich : I do not know much about that.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I might give you a copy of that later. It would be interesting to hear if that was something you would have felt comfortable participating in, terms of gathering information.

Mr Sarich : My immediate response would be I doubt I would have felt comfortable. However, I think it would have also been clear that there was some useful information in that kind of system.

Senator SESELJA: Turning to opportunities in employment and training, what is there for you at the moment? If there is not anything of substance, what are you hoping for in future possibilities when it comes to retraining or employment opportunities?

Mr Sarich : At the moment, one of the things I am looking at is the training in peer support and mentoring, particularly in training how to effectively work with other veterans who have experienced trauma. That is the kind of thing I am looking at now. Answering the questions about training and employment, we have talked about the idea that being an infantry soldier is being at the top of your game, of being injured and of trying to look for civilian work. At one stage a DVA rehab provider was interviewing me and assisting me with getting back to work. One of the options this rehab provider presented me with was something like driving a backhoe. I am not sure if I can explain how almost insulting that was. It was presented to me as like a you-beaut option—we have got something awesome for you; you can drive a backhoe.

Senator SESELJA: That was obviously one of those experiences that did not work out. But are you able to give me an understanding if there are opportunities at the moment that you are seeing? You said mentoring and the like is something that you would like to get into. Are there possibilities around that? Are there training programs that you are aware of? Is there support to get into those training programs?

Mr Sarich : Some of the peer-to-peer training that I am looking at is in its infancy. They are very new programs so not easily accessible. Not everybody is doing them but they are certainly around. I have only been able to find so far a few providers throughout Australia. It is not overly common.

Senator SESELJA: Has DVA given you any assistance with putting you in touch with those or coordinating or anything like that?

Mr Sarich : I have not worked with DVA in trying to access that.

Senator SESELJA: How do you find out about these things? Is there someone who gives you assistance with that or do you just self-source it?

Mr Sarich : Most of it has been from this informal network among Homes for Heroes, the staff and other residents.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your evidence, Mr Sarich.